Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson. Photos by Russ Jackson and Ken Miller (New photos added 3/1)
Thursday, February 21, was “Intercity Passenger Rail Day” in Sacramento.
Distinguished rail leaders from around the state of California met to discuss the benefits and future of the four state rail corridors, LOSSAN (San Diego-Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo), Capitol Corridor CCJPB (San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento-Auburn), San Joaquin SJVRC (LA-Bakersfield-Sacramento-Oakland), and the new Coast Corridor CCRC (San Francisco-San Luis Obispo-Los Angeles). Officials from these corridors met with Amtrak Chairman of the Board Donna McLean, Caltrans Director Will Kempton and others, toured the State Capitol meeting with legislators, ending with the general session at noon.
RailPAC, led by event coordinator Richard Silver, along with Alstom Corp. and Bombardier, provided support.
RailPAC President, Paul Dyson (right), introduced the speakers, calling for the state to “invest smartly and incrementally” in its rail program. (left) RailPAC Treasurer Bill Kerby and (center) website editor Russ Jackson.
RailPAC Director, Marcia Johnston (left) and CC Riders President Chuck Roebuck also attended. At the end of the formal program CCJPA Managing Director, Gene Skoropowski, premiered “Intercity Rail,” a new video. Mr. Skoropowski has agreed to show this video at the RailPAC Annual Meeting April 19.
Caltrans Director Will Kempton welcomed the group, saying “Caltrans and the Governor are behind expansion of rail opportunities. Passenger rail is essential to future mobility, and California has invested $1.8 billion since 1976.” Mr. Kempton repeated what many of us have heard him say many times, that now with 16 round trips daily between Sacramento and the Bay Area there “is no reason not to take the train!”
The Hon. Forrest Williams, a San Jose City Councilman and current Chairman of the CCJPB, speaking of the Intercity Rail Success Story, emphasized that the rail programs “cannot expand until more rolling stock is obtained. When that happens it will create a better return on the investment.” RailPAC has learned that 5 more rebuilt Superliner coaches the state is leasing from Amtrak in addition to the two already received are now expected to begin arriving in July, but additional cars are badly needed and the state is still waiting for approval to use Proposition 1b money allocated for their purchase.
The Hon. Art Brown, a Buena Park City Councilman and former Mayor, also Chairman of the LOSSAN Corridor, spoke of the benefits and challenges of sharing the corridors throughout the state with Amtrak and the commuter lines, calling for additional planning and coordination among them.
The Hon. Dave Potter, a Monterey County Supervisor and Chairman of the CRCC, talked of the need for connecting gap in the Coastal route with the anticipated Coast Daylight train. He said that Monterey has put rail at the top of its environmentally friendly list. He looks forward to plans for returning the Del Monte train which would move people to his county. Monterey County now owns the rail line.
The Hon. Harvey Hall, Bakersfield Mayor and current Chairman of the SJVRC, spoke positively about the San Joaquin Valley rail system, with ridership growing. SJVRC’s vision is to increase the frequency of trains available, and called on everyone involved with the rail programs to “Dream what might be possible.”
Amtrak Board of Directors Chairman, Donna McLean, told the group she was pleased to see that “you are coordinating, not competing! She came to the meetings to “understand the California system, so Amtrak can use this system elsewhere.”
Now, what else did I learn at this meeting? This was definitely a “meet and greet” session to call attention to the four state rail corridors.
RailPAC VP North Art Lloyd (right)(shown with Amtrak’s Director, System Operations, Ken Miller) told me that the combined 4 corridor ridership is approaching 50% of what the Northeast Corridor carries, almost 5 million passengers a year, which is double what they carried in 1990! That’s real growth. Art also serves on the Caltrain Board, which is adding two additional evening trains making 98 daily. He is very pleased that the evening trains will be on “memory” schedules with departures on the half hour. Caltrain’s growth goal is 110 trains daily. Mr. Lloyd, now retired, and Mr. Miller are veteran Amtrak employees, both having been hired in its first year!
And speaking of “growth,” this reporter had a short interview with Amtrak Chairman McLean, where I asked her about growth for the Amtrak long distance trains. She replied, “I don’t see any growth coming there. We are working hard to improve the current services, what with improvements already on the Empire Builder and coming on the Coast Starlight.” She asked which long distance trains I ride, and I mentioned the Sunset Limited and its desperate needs for improvement such as DAILY service, returning to Phoenix, and returning service east of New Orleans to Jacksonville for example.
Speaking of the Sunset Limited, I recently received the following comments from a former colleague whose daughter now lives in Houston, Texas, and they ride #1 and 2 for visits as well as riding other Amtrak and Canadian trains. He says, “Our trip on the Sunset Limited was OK, but lots of limitations. Cars not clean, sewage smell. Crews were friendly, they improved the meal service and are now cooking some on board. That is a great improvement. On time into Houston is a real problem. Trains are OK if you don’t have to embark or disembark mid route!” So, Chairman McLean, there is still work to do isn’t there?
Is California totally happy with Amtrak? Not if you listen to several conversations taking place before and after the Rail Day general session. I overheard several comments about how “we” would be financially much better off with Amtrak out of the Oakland Maintenance base, and its work turned over to a private contractor. “Amtrak does a great job running trains,” but they “can’t keep the equipment running.” Interesting. It’s obvious the independence of the national coalition of states is having its effect on combating Amtrak’s dominance of the rail corridor discussions. Lobbyists were present who talked of buying new cars for the states and leasing them back. Is this an idea whose time has come?
RailPAC has received the following letter from CCJPA Managing Director, Gene Skoropowski (reprinted here with permission):
I would like to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to you for the work and participation of RailPAC in yesterday’s successful event. It was a very successful day politically as well, as three teams comprising the Chairs of each of the 4 corridor agencies, plus board members, executive staff and high level Amtrak representation ‘made the rounds’ to key state legislators. We were very well received, and several agreed to consider being part of a new intercity rail caucus. We are following up on that one.
The noon event not only prompted a good story today in the Oakland Tribune (picked up by national wire services, and, lo and behold, by the FRA!) and there is a strong demand for more copies of the video. We are processing those. Again, my sincere thanks and appreciation for all your work and for conducting the noon event. I will see you for sure in April for the joint RailPAC/NARP Region XII meeting.